Previous Section Home Page

Column 894

Mr. Evans : It will only be--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am sorry, but I have to implement the rule to which the House agreed.

7.29 pm

Mr. Eric. S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Nobody can say that there has been no hooliganism and that there has not been or is not a problem. There is. However, some Conservative Members have failed to recognise the problems with which we must deal. Let me quote an example of hooliganism. Until the tragedy at Heysel, the Liverpool team travelled around, playing football in just about every large city on the continent. When the team went to Rome, a group of Liverpool supporters were set upon by some supporters, and at least two of my constituents were stabbed. The Italian authorities were extremely helpful in ensuring that they were properly looked after and helped to get them back to our country. The Liverpool people got tremendous support throughout the continent. The one great blot was the Heysel stadium tragedy. There is no simple answer to what happened at Heysel.

What happened at Hillsborough was not the result of hooliganism. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), who said that fans had burst through the gates, was not telling the truth. Everybody knows that, rightly or wrongly, a policeman gave instructions for the gate to be opened. I said at the time that I did not argue with the decision. There are several views about it, but there was no hooliganism. There was a great tragedy, just as there was a tragedy at Heysel.

I should like to point out what Liverpool supporters say about the Bill. On Friday 7 April, I presented a petition to the House. It was signed by 26,411 supporters from Liverpool--the Liverpool football supporters. I am not talking about supporters of the club that I support, Everton. Their petition reads :

"That we condemn the proposed legislation to force football supporters to carry identification cards, and we believe that a system of identity cards will have little impact on the problem of football-related violence, will hinder football's attempt to attract a new generation of supporters and will lead to the eventual demise of the game as a spectator sport."--[ Official Report, 7 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 471.]

That is absolutely right. They enthusiastically gave me that petition on the night that Liverpool played Derby County. It was an evening match at which 40,000 people were present.

My old friend Lord Sefton of Garston--we were great mates in the Liverpool trades council and Labour party, before he took a slightly wrong path and went to the House of Lords--made an excellent speech in which he said that he had written to the chief constable of Liverpool requesting some figures relating to how many people were injured or arrested at matches at Liverpool and Everton in one year. The chief constable said that there was a total attendance of 1,812,000 people at the two football grounds in one season. He gave figures relating to crimes committed two hours before the game, during the game and after the game, as laid down in the Bill. At Everton there were four cases of theft from the person and 15 woundings-- not a happy scene. At Liverpool there were 10 thefts and no woundings. The figures included thefts from motor cars and so on. Out of the 1,812,000 people

Column 895

who had gone to those matches, about 30 people were arrested, and most of the offences took place outside the pitch.

Ministers often give us figures relating to arrests and so on. We are told that there were 6,147 arrests during the 1987-88 season, but we are not told that those arrests represent 0.03 per cent. of the 18 million people who attend games throughout the season. I invite all hon. Members to read the excellent brief from the Football League and the Football Association.

There have been some excellent speeches in the House today. One or two were made by Conservative Members--those who support our opposition to the Bill. We heard an excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and, in particular, an excellent speech by my new hon. Friend the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey). I hope that she makes many more such speeches. I say that as somebody who was not happy about the way in which she was picked, but she is here and she has made an excellent speech. I am sure that she will make a good contribution to our proceedings. It is interesting that, apart from one or two hon. Members who go to football matches and, for some reason, get a bit crackpot about it, other Conservative Members who attend football matches are opposed to the Bill. The overwhelming majority of people who go to football matches and even those who do not are opposed to the Bill. Let us deal with hooliganism and other problems, but let us deal with them in a different way from that which has been suggested. I appeal to Conservative Members to be bold and to be like myself and others have been over the years when we have disagreed with our Governments. I ask them to go into the Lobby and vote according to their consciences and, if their consciences say say no, vote no. If enough of them do that, we will defeat the Bill tonight.

7.38 pm

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : I declare an outside interest as parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation,. In contributing to the debate, I should like to express the most recent considered views of the Police Federation as well as those of my constituents. Hon. Members who have been here for some time will know that the position I occupy has been occupied by several distinguished hon. Members, and it provides an opportunity for the Police Federation's view to be made known.

The extent of football violence and of violence associated with the game of football has caused considerable concern during the past few years to all hon. Members and to many members of the public for reasons of which we are all well aware. Such events have generated widespread agreement about the need for some sort of action. However, there is much less agreement about the sort of action that is necessary.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has suggested to his colleagues that there is agreement by the Police Federation and the Football Association on the principle of a membership scheme. That is true, but I must inform the House that the Police Federation would prefer a 100 per cent. home-supporters-only scheme, which is not proposed in the Bill. As I understand it, the Football Association argues for an away club membership scheme, which is not proposed in the Bill either. Such a scheme was referred to in a fine speech by the hon. Member for

Column 896

Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), to whom I always listen with great attention. Neither the Police Federation nor the Football Association is in favour of my right hon. Friend's precise proposals, although they have both expressed their preference for a different type of national membership scheme.

The prime concern of the Police Federation is the injury and loss of life suffered by football supporters at matches during the past few years. Naturally, the federation is also concerned about the real difficulties that police officers have to face when policing the often large crowds of supporters who arrive late at football grounds and who are anxious to gain admission quickly. Sometimes those supporters do not have tickets. Sometimes they are excitable and may well have been drinking on their way to the match. Nevertheless, the federation has serious reservations about the type of national membership scheme that may be proposed by the Football Membership Authority. It is not convinced that, when enacted, the Bill will stop hooliganism outside football grounds, although it may well make a contribution towards achieving that end.

The federation has carefully considered the position in recent days as a responsible staff federation. It would much prefer a 100 per cent. home supporters scheme, such as is operated at Luton, but it recognises that that may be difficult to achieve, especially because many fans regularly support clubs that are many hundreds of miles from their home town and yet regard that team as their home club. The overriding consideration of the federation is to support action that will stop the spiralling violence and hooliganism that is connected with the game of football. For that reason above all, the federation is prepared to accept that there should be a membership scheme. I should prefer any scheme brought forward to be approved by affirmative resolution of this House so that we would all have a chance to debate and approve it. However, I realise that technical difficulties may be associated with, for example, the question of hybridity because some clubs will be treated differently from others. I am glad that, at the very least, after Lord Justice Taylor has reported, the House will have two opportunities to debate both the constitution of the FMA before it is set up, and the final scheme that is submitted to the Secretary of State for approval, subject to the agreement of the House on his approval.

Hon. Members will therefore have two opportunities, if they so wish, to vote against either the constitution of the FMA and to defeat it, or to vote against the proposed membership scheme. Every hon. Member who was present on the night when the Shops Bill failed, will know that even in a House in which the Government have a large majority, such measures can be defeated. If the Bill were to fail on either of those counts, both the membership scheme and the Bill would probably be dropped. It is now clear that if the House does not approve the constitution of the FMA or my right hon. Friend's approval of the scheme, the measure will not go ahead. That was made clear in my right hon. Friend's speech this afternoon.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport will give a firm undertaking to consult the Police Federation on the scheme to be recommended by the FMA if the Bill is passed. I hope that he will give that assurance this evening. I stress the need for my right hon. and hon. Friends to agree to consult the Police Federation as well as the chief constables. My right hon. Friend knows that the federation is a staff association that was set up by

Column 897

an Act of Parliament 70 years ago. So, it has a special place in the scheme of things. That is the basis for its request to be consulted. In my view, it could make a practical input that will help to make whatever scheme may be recommended more acceptable and more workable.

The federation also considers that the scheme outlined in the Bill should be administered by an independent statutory authority rather than by an authority formed by the Football Association and the Football League. It takes that view because it considers that in the past those bodies have not exercised sufficient influence to ensure that the money from admissions has been used to improve football grounds and to provide proper facilities for supporters. If, however, the FMA is to be constituted as proposed in the Bill, the federation would like it to be headed by an independent chairman who should be a national figure, widely acceptable to both the football world and the police. I suggest that there should be a commissioner of football and that the chairman of the FMA should be known as that commissioner. He should have specific responsibility for ensuring the safety of football grounds, in addition to being the independent head of the FMA. That would be a useful move forward.

The federation wishes to make another proposal--that the FMA should have the power to recommend to the Secretary of State that there should be a ban on away supporters at certain grounds for an appropriate period, should that prove necessary. Furthermore, the federation believes that a good opportunity now exists to exclude convicted child molesters and pickpockets from any membership scheme that may be approved.

My constituents who have written to me about the Bill have expressed their concern about the introduction of identity cards for attendance at football matches. They will be relieved to know that this is an enabling Bill-- [Interruption.] --yes, and that I, as their representative, will have two further opportunities, if I so wish, to vote against either the FMA or the scheme that it proposes. I give notice to the House that I shall exercise that privilege if I judge it right to do so.

When my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport replies to the debate, I should be grateful if he would state whether the Government will agree to formal consultation with the Police Federation when the scheme is produced by the FMA and before it is approved by my right hon. Friend. I should also be grateful if he would comment on the proposal that there should be an independent chairman of the FMA, perhaps styled the "commissioner of football" as I have suggested. Mr. Meale rose--

Mr. Shersby : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, but I am up against the time constraints. If my hon. Friend gives me those assurances tonight, I shall give him this assurance--I shall not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, but I shall reserve my position and that of the federation with regard either to the constitution of the FMA or to any scheme that it may recommend for approval to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Column 898

7.48 pm

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde) : I should like to add my voice to those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) on an excellent maiden speech. Those of us who know her know of her love for sport and are not surprised that she made such a speech. We know that she is a great champion of football and of all sports and we look forward to hearing from her in the future. Some hon. Members may not know that my hon. Friend was once a high-jumper for Northern Ireland. On the basis of her speech tonight, she is well on the way to becoming a parliamentary high-flyer. I think that she was a little unfair on the Minister for Sport in asking him to take on the Prime Minister ; no one else on the Government Benches would dare.

This is a sad day for association football and for those millions who follow it. It is a sad day, too, for the Government, but most of all it is a sad day for the House. Almost certainly, if we had had a free vote tonight, a majority of hon. Members would vote against the legislation. Instead of attempting to enact the Football Spectators Bill, which is irrelevant to the real problems that the game faces, the Government should be listening to those who care about, love and understand the game. As has already been said, the real tragedy, following the sad loss of life at Hillsborough, is that we--

Mr. Ridley : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pendry : I am pushed for time, but for the Secretary of State I will give way.

Mr. Ridley : Is there a free vote among Opposition Members? Certain Labour Members would dearly like to vote for the Bill. We all know who they are, and so does the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Pendry : That is another of the Secretary of State's red herrings. Of course, one or two of my hon. Friends were doubtful until they heard the informed voices of the rest of us. We are all united.

I was about to say that the House and the football authorities are missing out on a great opportunity, following the disaster at Hillsborough, to sort out the myriad of problems that affect our game. Why are we discussing this legislation before the Taylor report, either interim or final? The report is crucial because the inquiry's remit is the safety of crowd control, which is bound to impinge on the relevance of ID cards. We still do not know when Lord Justice Taylor will report, either in the interim or finally. Why, therefore, did the Minister for Sport assure the House, in a written answer : "The timetable for the Football Spectators Bill will allow the House, in considering the Bill, to take account of relevant recommendations from Lord Justice Taylor's inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster."--[ Official Report, 24 April 1989 ; Vol. 151, c. 415.]

Why does not the Secretary of State come clean? The Government are determined to railroad this legislation through. There is no way that we can amend it at any stage--and he knows that. I am sure that the country is in no doubt as to the Government's intentions. It is the Prime Minister's baby. She wants the Bill through, and that lot over there will in the main support it.

Lord Justice Taylor will certainly not report next week when we go into Committee. The Government should not legislate on an interim report--there are dangers in that course--but should wait for the final one. Legislation

Column 899

should not be based on the interim report, because the Popplewell inquiry, following the Bradford tragedy, clearly showed that interim reports can be dangerous. In his interim report, Lord Justice Popplewell said :

"Urgent consideration should be given to introducing a membership system in England and Wales so as to exclude visiting fans." Although that was his interim report, it is the one that is often thought of as the pioneer of this legislation. However, in his final report in January 1986--six months into the football season--Lord Justice Popplewell, amended it to

"a partial membership scheme which still allows casuals to enter the ground."

That is a gross distortion of the Government's claim that the ID card scheme is built on the recommendations of the Popplewell report--the interim report, perhaps ; but the final report, certainly not.

The Minister for Sport and the Secretary of State have got it completely wrong. It would be morally wrong, and dangerous, for the Government to put pressure on Lord Justice Taylor to report early to fit in with the compressed legislative timetable, rather than to report accurately.

Football is now in an impossible position. The more the game tries to clear itself and make it attractive and safe, the more the Government attack it. The Bill was originally conceived in another place. It has 22 clauses-- Catch 22. The ultimate relevance of the Bill is that it can destroy so- called football hooliganism but, as seems likely, football will be destroyed in the process. It is Catch 22 indeed.

The legislation is bad. As chairman of the all-party football committee, I have received hundreds of letters--as no doubt other hon. Members have--but I want to quote just one, written to me on 3 March. It says :

"Dear Mr. Pendry,

As a life long supporter of Blackpool FC and football generally, I am very concerned about the Government's plans to introduce a national football membership scheme More seriously, I feel that football can only be harmed by such an intervention. I have taken up the issue with my local MPs both in Fleetwood and Hull but obviously the Conservative MPs have toed the party line in their replies." He concludes by saying :

"I would also be grateful if you could provide me with any information which supports the case against the scheme. I look forward to hearing from you.

N. Hodgson. (On behalf of Hull University Conservative and Unionist Association)."

If the Tories' own party members are up in arms, as they are, the Bill will have a rough passage. Following the Euro-elections, many Labour candidates with football grounds in or near their constituencies cannot wait for the next general election. We have heard about the Home Office's belief that fewer police will be needed if the legislation goes through.

Mr. Denis Howell : Rubbish.

Mr. Pendry : I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is rubbish. I shall just mention one fact, which I believe has already been mentioned. There are more than 1,800 turnstiles in the 92 league clubs. If the proposed scheme goes through, there will be at least one policeman, if not more, at the end of every turnstile on the wrong side of the ground. It means that extra police officers will be needed to police queues. That must clearly be thought through. We heard today from my pair, who represent, the Police Federation, that the Police Federation has changed its mind. I believe that it has changed its mind only since the

Column 900

hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) became its parliamentary adviser. As I have heard that there is an hon. Member who is very close to the Opposition who wishes to have a pair, I shall reflect on my position.

Mr. Meale : Does not my hon. Friend find it strange that a Member of Parliament who has taken on this new position should be promoting or supporting legislation while the organisation which he represents does not argue for a similar system to combat violence in other sports, such as horse racing, where there have been 17,000 incidents--three times the number for football--or Henley, where stabbings have occurred, or rowing, in which the Minister for Sport participates?

Mr. Pendry : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention-- [Laughter.] I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will have compassion on me for that.

ID cards will punish the majority of the 99.99 per cent. of those who have nothing to do with hooliganism. We all know that similar problems exist on Benidorm's beach, in the home counties or in our city centres. Those same hooligans are attaching themselves to football. The legislation will not stop the fights at Euston station. There will be no closed-circuit cameras positioned there. We need tough and planned sentencing of convicted criminals. The law is already in place--we have the Public Order Act 1986-- but it is not being used. If exclusion orders were imposed on those who cause trouble, preferably with a rider to make criminals sign on on Saturday afternoons, hooliganism could be divorced from football. I quote from Hansard :

"An exclusion order scheme will enable the courts to ban convicted hooligans from attending football matches. The purpose of this scheme is to exclude the troublemakers, and especially the ringleaders who instigate much of the violence."--[ Official Report, 13 January 1986 ; Vol. 89, c. 799.]

Those are not my words but the words of the Home Secretary. Why is that legislation not being used? Why do fewer than one in six of those supposedly arrested for football-related incidents receive exclusion orders? Why, two and a half years into the scheme, is it being dumped in favour of the ID scheme? The Bill shows that the Government are out of touch with our national game. With the exception of those hon. Members who regularly attend games--they are being gagged tonight, but some brave ones will come through the Lobby--Conservative Members do not understand the problems facing football.

I cite the problems of a small club like Colchester United. In 1986-87, its average gate was 2,740. In 1987-88 it introduced a 100 per cent. membership scheme. When it introduced the Luton-type scheme, its gate dropped enormously. Even though it was heading for promotion at Christmas, it had to sell players, and the club slumped to ninth. The scheme was abandoned midway through that season, but the average gate for the season was just 1,754--36 per cent. down on the previous year. This season, even though Colchester has been fighting for its life, having abandoned the scheme, its gate rose by 65 per cent. Its gate is up to 2,893. That is what will happen to many clubs similar to Colchester if this legislation is passed. The Dutch FA listened to the Dutch Government and the Dutch Government listened to it--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. Mr. Pendry : I am sure that in Committee--

Column 901

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I am a hard woman.

7.59 pm

Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North) : I join other hon. Members in adding my welcome to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) and my congratulations on her excellent maiden speech. It was a pleasure to be in the Chamber to listen to her speech, and I am sure that we shall hear much more from her in the future, not least on the subject of football in which she has obvious expertise.

I offer a somewhat guarded welcome to the Bill because I imagine that it is hardly likely that many will have a real enthusiasm for it. I cannot say that I believe that the Bill is desirable, but I appreciate that it is most necessary.

Some reference has already been made to the emotion that regards football as our national game. As I come from Wales, I shall not claim that football is my national game. Those who know Wales will appreciate that rugby is far more likely to be our national game. If I was honest I would say that it is our religion rather than our national game.

Only a few weeks ago in Arms Park, the spiritual home of international rugby, an important soccer match was played. It was an all-seated football match, which appeared to be carried off successfully and which stood up well to comparison with other football matches. That example could help us to contemplate the ideal to which we are all striving. Another example of that ideal is American football matches. In the United States, American football is not just a game but an entertainment. As far as I am aware, that game is regarded as extremely safe for all the family to attend. Surely that is the way in which all sports should be going. They should be much more of a family entertainment. Ideally, there should be good parking provision so as not to cause a nuisance to anyone else, and even space for picnics and barbecues. Football should be played in seated stadiums where spectators and fans could enjoy services, including the sale of alcoholic drink, during the game and the entertainment. I appreciate that that proposition would not be encouraged now, but in the future it could be. That is the ideal to which we should strive as we have not reached that ideal now. At the moment many of us would be afraid to take our younger children to most of our professional football clubs. We do not regard such clubs as the venues of traditional family entertainment. Those grounds are preceived to be home to large tribal warfare, inside and outside the ground. People perceive that major action is necessary to deal with the problem. I know that the opponents of the Bill argue that the numbers involved in such trouble are small and that it is only public perception that the problem is major.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) tried to quote figures to show that the number arrested at football matches was small and decreasing in comparison with the total number attending. I noticed, however, that he did not respond to a pertinent intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), who sought to point out that there is already close supervision by the police and the stewards and closed-circuit television, but that the current number of arrests are still being made.

Column 902

We must not underestimate or ignore the public perception of the problem. I do not agree with the claim that the problem is not major. The public perceive it as a problem and we must not ignore their concern.

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) : Does the hon. Gentleman perceive the problem among Welsh clubs. If so, would he care to name the Welsh league clubs where that problem prevails?

Mr. Jones : I am afraid that I must tell my new colleague from south Wales that I do not believe that the Welsh clubs are innocent. I am sorry to admit that Cardiff City football club does not have the highest reputation and it must aim for a much higher standard of behaviour among its fans. The problem is not peculiar to English clubs.

The problem is not new. About 15 years ago I remember trying to organise a function in Cardiff. I tried to encourage people to go into the centre of Cardiff one Saturday evening. When it came out that Manchester United was playing in Cardiff that day, the overwhelming consensus was that Cardiff would not be the appropriate place for the function to be held. That was the attitude 15 years ago and it has not changed now ; in fact, it is perceived that the problem is just as bad or much worse now.

We must respond to the public's perception of the problem. If we asked the public whether they thought that the problem was getting worse, the answer would be yes. If we asked whether they thought that action should be taken, the answer would be yes. The Bill is currently the best way forward. The overwhelming public opinion is that there is no case for doing nothing about the problem, but that appears to be the attitude conveyed by the Opposition.

Although I said that this Bill does not relate to the national game of Wales, there are two Welsh aspects to it. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) might have been trying to prompt the question about Welsh clubs being excluded from the Bill's provisions. I do not believe that that is a practical suggestion. For that to happen the three Welsh clubs would have to be eliminated from the Football League and from the Football Association cup. Almost everyone in Wales would regard that as undesirable.

The second Welsh aspect relates to one of the foremost, if not the first, advocates of a national membership scheme, the former Member of Parliament for Cardiff, West, Mr. Stefan Terlezki. He was tireless in lobbying for such a membership card scheme. He had good experience on which to base his case, as he had previously been the chairman of Cardiff City and therefore had first-hand experience of the problems encountered inside and outside that ground. Cardiff City football ground, Ninian Park, was also in the constituency of Stefan Terlezki. He knew better than anyone the apprehension felt by residents near that football club when they knew that an important football match, or, in many cases, any football match, was being played.

The residents of Canton and Leckwith, which are close to Ninian Park, or those of Grangetown and Riverside, which are further afield, see the litter in their streets as a result of football matches. They see indiscriminate parking which adds to the existing congestion and traffic problems. They see take-away meals, half consumed, being deposited on the streets or in their gardens. They see vomit and worse

Column 903

being deposited on their streets and in their gardens. They suffer vandalism to their gardens and houses and, especially, they suffer intimidation at any of their attempts to remonstrate with those who cause the problems. "Terrorised" is not too strong a word to describe how many residents feel who live close to football grounds, be they in Cardiff or in other cities and towns. That feeling, above all others, is justification for making progress with the problem. However much we abhor the scenes on the pitches or terraces, however great our anxiety to stop violence and the suffering caused by it, our determination should be, above all, to protect the innocent. Who are more innocent than the people who live close to football grounds? Consider what they must put up with.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton) : Can my hon. Friend tell the House what is contained in the Bill that will help those people living close to football grounds? For the life of me I cannot see what it is, and I would be interested to hear what my hon. Friend has to say.

Mr. Jones : I must disagree with my hon. Friend, as I believe that the Bill strives to do the all-important thing--to break the link between violence and football. That violence is not football's responsibility, but it is its problem.

Football is the focal point for the hooligans that presently associate with it. Any convicted hooligan, however, would have no incentive to travel to a football ground as he would be denied admission and therefore the focal point of his violence would be removed. Violence is the prime cause of the problem for residents around football grounds. I believe that it is one of the prime reasons why we should make progress with the Bill, and I hope that we shall give it a Second Reading tonight.

8.8 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : I shall make a brief contribution.

Tonight some have argued that nothing can be done about the problem, while others have argued that something can be done. The argument has rolled back and forth, but we all agree that there is a problem in the sporting world and we all want a solution to it. I have never yet come across a situation, however, in which, while discussions are going on and the evidence is being taken, the decision is being made. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), in a brave speech, put his finger on it when he spoke about the arrogance of deciding before one knows and the danger of making a decision before all the evidence is collected.

The Hillsborough tragedy was awful. Mr. Justice Taylor's inquiry is sifting the evidence with great care. We are told that when he reports we will be given two opportunities to discuss the matter. Sadly, that statement misleads the House. The first opportunity that we shall be given will be when the Football Membership Authority is set up, which will be done by the Secretary of State. We shall know little about the membership authority until we are told. The decision will have been made. Whatever Mr. Justice Taylor has to say, the membership scheme will already exist and the decision will have been taken. What arrogance--the Government allow us to discuss the matter and consider the evidence after the decision has been taken.

Column 904

We have been told that we shall be given a second opportunity to discuss the membership scheme when the Secretary of State has approved the Football Membership Authority's decision on the scheme. When all the decisions have been taken, we shall be told that we can consider Mr. Justice Taylor's report, but the decision will have been taken. What arrogance. How small are we now and how tiny is our judgment. Why do not the Government have the courage and wisdom to say, "We shall listen to the arguments and evaluate the evidence." The Leader of the Opposition has suggested that we should have a special Standing Committee. That would be a second best suggestion. The best suggestion would be to put the Bill on the back burner until we have the evidence. However, if we cannot persuade the House to do that tonight, perhaps we can persuade hon. Members to have a special Standing Committee which could at least call for the evidence and hear the arguments. At least then the decisions taken by the Committee would be in the knowledge of all the available evidence, not on the grounds of dogma, arrogance and pride which dictate that the Bill must go through.

Many years ago when I was a young lawyer I was told to remember one great maxim : one is not always right. I tender that piece of advice to the Minister tonight. What is being suggested is a bit like asking the jury to call in the verdict before being allowed to hear the evidence. The problem we face is as simple as that, and I hope that the House will show more sense than has been shown so far in the debate by some Conservative Members.

8.15 pm

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : I strongly support the Bill, not only as someone who recognises the fear, crime and damage to the national reputation which is too often focused on our football grounds, is totally unacceptable and cannot be merely shrugged off as a manifestation of violence in society, but as someone who is passionate about the game. I still play a bit and have watched professional football at least twice a week for 25 years. A member of my family had the honour, some may say the misfortune, to be chairman of a first division football club for 20 years.

I am convinced that anyone with any imagination will see the Bill as an opportunity to make football the great national spectator sport which it once was. That something is rotten in the state of football must be obvious to everybody who is not a purblind member of the league management committee. Last year alone, arrests in the football league increased by 11 per cent. to 6,000, and that figure was doubled by the amount of ejections for bad behaviour at football grounds, which amounted to another 6,000.

It takes 5,000 policemen, who could be performing more constructive tasks, to police football matches every weekend of the season. This is at a time when the majority of league clubs are technically near insolvency and shored up only by their asset values and the activites of property developers who wish to develop their grounds. This at a time when the concentration in the Football League in the top five clubs is becoming greater than ever, as witnessed by the fiasco when the chairman of one first division football club tried to bargain with both ITV and the BBC

Column 905

at the same time during the recent television negotiations. The standards of behaviour on the pitch reflect the falling standards of behaviour on the terraces.

The Football Trust figures show that in 1970-71 there were 37 sendings off and 906 cautions, and by 1987 there were 215 sendings off and 4,037 cautions. These problems demand immediate action, and are compounded by the apparent acceptance of violence as an integral part of football shown in the statements of breathtaking complacency made by the chairman of first division football clubs, such as Ken Bates of Chelsea. In a letter to his supporters on 4 January this year he said :

"We must be careful that our rational feelings are not carried away by reaction to media comment. At our match with Middlesborough last season we had 53 arrests within the ground and this was described as a riot".

Surprise, surprise!--How should the media describe it, as some sort of teddy bears' picnic? A certain divine retribution was shown, and that complacency was exposed when, the Saturday after the Hillsborough tragedy, there were no less than 94 arrests at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea football club.

That is not to say that the Football League's problems are ignored. We have heard about the initiatives including the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988, the public order act on the statutory front. We have heard that, to a certain extent, clubs have taken initiatives in closed-circuit television, partial membership schemes, segregation and in some inconsistent efforts to improve player behaviour.

However, violence continues to increase. Only a few weeks ago, my old club, Birmingham City, and Crystal Palace were involved in appalling pitched battles following a football match. We still see spectators running amok in town centres. By December, there were no less than 300 incidents last season alone involving British football fans on public transport. There is some evidence, as adduced by the Football Trust, that the pattern of arrests per match is spreading from the first and second divisions right across the Football League.

The result of all this is that the game which was the gentleman's game of Matt Busby, Johnny Haynes, Gil Merrick and Trevor Brooking now too often reflects, in the 10 men behind the ball, the zonal marking and the 135 per cent. effort on the pitch, the sort of hard, talentless attitudes seen off it.

It does not take an enormous effort of imagination, for which football administrators are rarely noted, to see that the Bill provides an opportunity to break out of that cycle. The membership scheme will provide an opportunity to raise the image, appeal and dignity of the game and gradually exclude those elements who organise and are involved in violence, and who drag the name of football through the mud. As a result, we could attract back to the game the 12 million fans who have been lost during the past 20 years. It is significant that a poll conducted by the Mail on Sunday between 21 and 23 November last year showed that 61 per cent. of people said that they would regularly watch a football match on television, but 48 per cent. never went to a football match. However, 80 per cent. of that 48 per cent. had been to a football match during the past four or five years. Of those polled, 56 per cent. thought that a

Column 906

membership scheme was a good idea, which indicates their loyalty to the game and the fact that they are hungry for a lead to protect the sport and ensure its revival.

Any scheme which leads to the revival of football will not be without difficulties. Of course clubs are worried about the decline in casual support. However, support for Luton recovered quickly in one season, following the introduction of a membership scheme. We have already heard that Manchester United managed on a voluntary basis to recruit no less than 40,000 members to its membership scheme during the past two or three years.

If we consider the problems of entry, only a minority of clubs are faced with 650 to 1,000 fans entering per minute, and smart cards will accommodate those numbers. It should not be beyond the wit of the larger clubs to have the necessary stewarding to deal with such numbers. Equally, it should not be beyond the wit of many clubs to provide sufficient pre- match entertainment so that more than 40 per cent. of fans--the number quoted by Manchester United--get into the grounds up to 10 minutes before kick-off.

As for the costs, although the Arthur Young study group talked about ridiculous figures of between £33 million and £36 million net, its projections of profit per supporter over five years were ridiculously low, at about £2 per member. It made no projection for the increased support that I believe the membership scheme will bring in the long term. It is very significant that, of the 90 companies that originally showed an interest, at least five or six are now prepared to proceed with such a scheme on a totally free basis for football clubs. [Hon. Members :-- "Which ones?"] I think that that will be borne out later in debate.

Of course there will be practical difficulties, but they can be overcome. As for the principle, the Government are right to insist that the problem must be dealt with as a matter of urgency, and equally right to lay down a framework for implementaton of the scheme. The rewards will be great. Not only will cities, towns and suburbs which have too often been shuttered and fearful on match days no longer be a focus for the violence for which football has provided too many opportunities, but--equally important--our national game will be saved as a spectator sport for fathers and sons and for young and old alike. It will be made respectable. Entertainment, not blind confrontation, will be encouraged, and the Bill will do much to restore our national sporting reputation.

8.21 pm

Next Section

  Home Page